Tuesday, February 20, 2018
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Review: 'Love & Friendship' is full of biting wit, but not your typical Austen

Consider the 2010s, and his partnership with Amazon Studios, the tale of how Whit Stillman got his groove back.

The writer-director was the sharp wit behind the '90s indie films Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco. Then it took more than a decade until he made his next movie, with 2011's charming Damsels in Distress.

Now, after a television pilot for Amazon that wasn't picked up, Stillman worked again with the streaming service on the Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship.

Though they don't have much else in common, Love & Friendship and Amazon Studios' other current release, Chi-Raq, both see directors who rose to prominence at the turn of the '90s looking to past literature to revitalize their current careers. While Spike Lee uses the classical Greek sex comedy Lysistrata as a springboard to address current Chicago violence in the latter, the former has Stillman turning to Lady Susan, a posthumously published Austen novella.

That said, Lady Susan is not your typical Austen work. Rather than the principled, virtuous heroine Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Susan Vernon (The Last Days of Disco star Kate Beckinsale) is an opportunistic widow who stays at her in-laws' estate while plotting her next romantic move. Meanwhile, she tries to pair off her daughter to a rich but dim-witted suitor, much to the younger Vernon's displeasure.

The caustic humor of Austen's source material fits Stillman's mordant wit like one of Lady Susan's luxurious gloves. The screenplay is full of biting one-liners like Lady Susan's lament that her friend's husband is "too old to be governable and too young to die."

Even the title is a dark joke. Lady Susan sees marriage as nothing more than a means for financial security, and friendship as a way to manipulate others. A traveling companion early in the film seems to do nothing but menial chores for her, but Lady Susan claims "as there's a friendship involved, I'm sure the paying of wages would be offensive to us both."

Though Beckinsale only gets to leave her Underworld leather jumpsuit long enough to fit into the equally confining clothes of the Victorian era, Love & Friendship provides her richest role in years. She also reunites with her Last Days of Disco co-star Chloe Sevigny, who plays Lady Susan's confidante trying to hide their friendship from her suspicious husband (Stephen Fry.)

Yet the best performance comes from relative unknown Tom Bennett, who makes a fine addition to the all-time great cinematic lunkheads as Sir James Martin, the suitor of Lady Susan's daughter. Every one of Sir James' actions is informed by a clueless but infectious joie de vivre, whether it's delight at the discovery of peas or befuddlement that the Churchill estate is not, in fact, a church on a hill.

Love & Friendship proves a more than worthy addition to the ever-expanding number of cinematic Austen adaptations, and here's hoping that we won't have any more decade-plus waits between films from Stillman.

Contact Jimmy Geurts at [email protected] or (813) 226-3402. Follow @JimmyGeurts.

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